Monday, July 6, 2009

Pastimes for Hot Days

L.G.C. Smith

Summer is not my favorite season. It’s too hot too often where I live, and I spend a lot of time lying low. Shades drawn, air conditioner blasting. If I have to go outside, I wince. Sure, the house is filled with the perfume of case after case of tree-ripened cherries, apricots, plums, peaches, and nectarines from my sister’s organic farm, Froghollow Farm, and I do like to make jam and the odd batch of peach ice cream, but mostly? Summer is for reading and writing.

It always has been, as this excerpt from my doctoral dissertation reminds me. It was written perhaps fifteen years ago, and the day I described happened longer ago than I care to remember, but the memory remains as fresh as the scent of peaches rising from the basket in front of me now.

“Lynn, you have to read this book. It’s soooo good,” my younger sister, Jan, urged time and again the summer I turned seventeen.
“Really,” agreed Sarah, the youngest of us. She rolled her eyes and shimmied her eleven-year-old body. “You gotta read it.”
I didn’t demur.
“I’m not going to read that crap.”
I was confident in the moral superiority of my chosen summer reading list: Dickens, Ken Kesey, Sylvia Plath, and Thomas Hardy.
“Well, it’s here in the bookcase if you change your mind,” Jan insisted, slotting the little book into a space. “You’d like it if you’d give it a chance.”
“Remember, that one’s the best,” Sarah said. “Beware the Beast. By Anne Mather.”
As a junior literary critic, the veteran of two semesters of Shakespeare, one of each advanced composition, British poetry, and 19th century American literature, I was not going to lower myself to read a book titled Beware the Beast. I had read the backs of the small but rapidly growing collection of white paperback Harlequin Presents that my mother had shelved next to our leather-bound Harvard Classics. Given the choice between real literature and those simplistic, silly tales of young English girls swept away by Dutch doctors (or British peers, expatriate businessmen living in exotic locales, Australian and Canadian ranchers, or an assortment of wealthy, titled European macho men) and reading with substance, I opted for the canon every time.
Until one day when everyone was gone.
There were no witnesses to capitulation, no urging voices to resist. It was hot; too hot to be depressed further by The Bell Jar. Between late adolescence and the weather, I was already far too close to crazy to read another miserable word of that. Wandering across the living room to the bookcases in the corner, I slid my hand along the smooth spines of the Harvard Classics. Tales of the Arabian Nights had proven dull. Dr. Johnson did not beckon. Plato made me sigh with despair. Bacon, Milton, not even my favorite metaphysical poets could rouse a fragment of interest.
I came to the dozen or so Harlequins. I drew my hand back.
No. I would not read one of those.
I looked back through the Classics.
No, not those either.
Like a sneak thief cohort of Oliver Twist, and before I could think the better of it, I snatched out Beware the Beast. The back cover titillated with the teaser - a young woman is bargained away by a careless, financially ruined, and now deceased father to marriage with a ruthless Greek shipping tycoon more than twice her age.
Oh, dear.
But what would it hurt? Having actually read one romance novel, I would be able to more effectively criticize them. Thus, with an attitude of mingled contempt and fascination, prepared to rip the book to shreds (perhaps literally) before my chastened sisters, I read my first romance novel.
Within the hour, I was hooked.

Just possibly, that might have been one of the best miserably hot summer days I’ve ever had.


Adrienne Bell said...

Love it! A friend back in high school gave me my first romance novel. Johanna Lindsey. I don't remember which title was my first. :-)

Sophie Littlefield said...

SCORE one for readers everywhere! Thank God there's wonderful books just waiting to bring magic to young readers everywhere. Every night this summer, I've tucked my daughter into bed (at fourteen these days are numbered) and she's got her book...often she falls asleep with it. Would I have picked THE CLIQUE books at her age? No, probably not, but that doesn't mean one durn thing. She likes what she likes and God bless her and the author who writes for her.

Martha Flynn said...

Continuing the trend that Adrienne and I lead parallel writing lives, I also received my first romancel novel from a friend, in high school, a Johanna Lindsey. Gentle Rogue.

Unknown said...

I remember reading Anne Mather...the secretary and the boss, set in London I believe, but of course I have no idea what the title is. :)

Rachael Herron said...

Anne Mather was absolutely my favorite back in the day, and I'd completely forgotten about her. Thanks for the reminder!

Dana Fredsti said...

I remember Anne Mather! Good lord, the name brings back memories... and all the Harlequins I read back in the day, both good and bad!